Thursday, July 15, 2010

SRI LANKA: Protest highlights hostility to international criticism

By Adithya Alles | Inter Press Service

Traffic now flows around the U.N. compound here in the Sri Lankan capital, and the dozens of policemen visible last week are no longer there. It is business as usual, a far cry from a week back when an angry minister’s death fast just outside the main U.N. office made the area the focus of international attention.

Minister of National Housing Wimal Weeravansha staged a hunger strike for two and half days starting Jul. 8 to protest U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s creation of an advisory panel on Sri Lanka, which has been under international scrutiny for human rights violations.

Weeravansha ended the fast only when President Mahinda Rajapaksa persuaded him to give it up.

Beyond hogging the international headlines for a few days, the four-day protest that started Jul. 6 highlighted what has been a trend for a while – of emotions that run high against what many perceive as unwelcome U.N. interest in Sri Lanka, and their hostility to criticism about the country’s human rights record in relation to the conduct of the last phase of the bloody civil war that ended last year.

Since May 2009, when government troops defeated the Tamil Tiger rebels, which for decades had fought for a separate homeland for minority Tamils, the country has received criticism about rights issues around the war, including displaced communities.

The government has refuted this, and fears of what is often called ‘unwarranted foreign intervention’ have been common here.

But the U.N. chief’s panel, formed to give him advice on Sri Lanka, does not have any mandate to initiate an inquiry into Sri Lanka, according to Ban himself. It also does not have the Security Council’s approval.

Still, many, especially those who support the President, fear that the panel is the first step toward an international inquiry into the conduct of the war.

Rajapaksa has gotten assurances that there would be no war crimes inquiry initiated by the United Nations, Weeravansha’s supporters said. "Eighty percent of our demands have been achieved," Jayantha Samaraweera, a member of the National Freedom Front led by Weeravansha, said after the fast.

A heightening of the rhetoric since the end of the fast – and protests that at one point included the blocking of U.N. staff from entering the compound and its closure for one day – have drawn concerns from diplomatic circles and some activists alike.

Already, U.N. Resident Representative Neil Buhne, whom Ban has recalled for consultations, is unlikely to be sent back to Colombo.

Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council, a national advocacy body, said that the recall was a tough reaction by the United Nations, and showed that this protest could have far-reaching repercussions. "If the government expected the UN to back down in the face of domestic protests, the UN reacted in a totally different manner by recalling the representative," he said.

During Weeravansha’s fast, Ban said in a statement: "The Secretary-General believes the strong reaction to his establishment of a Panel of Experts on accountability in Sri Lanka is not warranted."

The protest drew concern from the Colombo-based diplomatic corps, including the United States, European Union (EU) and other western nations. Countries like Russia, China and India, which helped Sri Lanka stave off action at the United Nations in New York in the past, remained non- committal through the fast.

Ban’s statement also referred to an agreement between Rajapaksa and the U.N. secretary-general on May 23, 2009, just five days after the bloody war ended. He said that the panel was set up to achieve the aims of that May 2009 statement, issued after Ban visited Sri Lanka.

"These objectives include the further fostering of reconciliation and related issues as well as reflecting the commitment by Sri Lanka to the promotion and protection of human rights and the importance of accountability," Ban’s statement last week said.

But "there was no mention of forming an advisory panel by the United Nations Secretary-General on Sri Lanka's accountability issues during the war in the joint statement," the foreign ministry said.

Still pursuing the line of rejecting a foreign role, Foreign Minister Gamini Peiris said that Sri Lankan government had set up a Lesson Learnt Reconciliation Commission in order to look into the conduct of the war. "The onus is passed on the government of Sri Lanka as this is purely an internal matter," he later told the media.

The disagreement with the U.N. secretary general is not the only high-profile diplomatic row that the government is having– and using the argument of foreign intervention on.

The EU recently scrapped Sri Lanka off a list of nations included in a preferential trade scheme known as the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) Plus. The EU suspended the concessions worth at least 150 million U.S. dollars in 2008, arguing that Sri Lanka was in contravention of human rights covenants.

It later said that it was willing to restore the concession if Sri Lanka met a set of conditions, but the Rajapaksa government has rejected any agreement with EU conditions. "This is a sovereign government. The conditions are an insult to whole of Sri Lanka," government spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella had told IPS.

Peiris has met EU ambassadors on GSP Plus, but a breakthrough seems remote.

Perera says that continuing diplomatic rows could be harmful for the country and its economy, which is very dependent on external factors and perceptions. He explained: "Garment exports are affected by the removal of GSP Plus, and if events like what happened near the UN repeat, there will some impact on foreign investments and tourist arrivals."

© Inter Press Service

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